Jeremy Pruitt: From UGA to another title game with Bama

Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt works with his players during football practice at the Thomas-Drew Practice Fields in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Vasha Hunt/ via AP)

Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt works with his players during football practice at the Thomas-Drew Practice Fields in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Vasha Hunt/ via AP)

This is the fourth time in six Januarys that Jeremy Pruitt has officially been part of a national championship game. In 2012 and 2013, he coached Alabama’s secondary. In 2014, he coordinated Florida State’s defense. Now he’s coordinating Bama’s.

Even last year, when he was technically between jobs, Pruitt was on hand in Glendale, Ariz., to watch the Crimson Tide play Clemson in the College Football Playoff final. That was Kirby Smart’s final act as Alabama’s defensive coordinator before moving to Athens to coach Georgia, which Pruitt had just left after presiding over two mostly excellent defenses.

To say Pruitt was Georgia’s defensive coordinator is an understatement. He essentially became its co-head coach. It was widely believed that he was teaching the famously serene Mark Richt the ways of the famously cutthroat Nick Saban. Indeed, at least subsequent Richt hires had worked with Pruitt at Alabama.

In his capacity as culture-changer, Pruitt wasn’t always the soul of discretion. He had shouting matches with two long-time Georgia staffers. He enraged athletic director Greg McGarity when, during an infrequent post-practice media briefing in 2014, he lobbied at length about the Bulldogs’ need of an indoor practice facility. (They have one now.) After the Faton Bauta-led loss to Florida in 2015, rumors flew that Pruitt was about to be fired, prompting Richt to take to Twitter and debunk them.

But that was then, and this is yet another in a series of championship appearances for the coach who, back in 2004, had to beg Rush Propst, now of Colquitt County, for an assistant’s job at Hoover (Ala.) High. Of his two years at Georgia, Pruitt said: “It’s learning a lesson for everybody who’s in this business when you win 10 football games and lose your job. That doesn’t happen at a whole lot of places. But I think everybody has landed in good spots, and you learn from it and just kind of look straight ahead. That’s all you can do.”

Speaking at Saturday’s media session ahead of a second consecutive title match with Clemson, Pruitt was as placid as … well, as Richt. He smiled when it was mentioned that his Georgia defenders had, on Aug. 31, 2014, yielded the first touchdown pass of Deshaun Watson’s Clemson career. “It was a 42-yard strike right down the middle of the field,” Pruitt said, overstating by 12 yards. “We had the guy covered about as well as you could cover him. Not many guys could have made that throw. After that game I was, like, ‘This guy is really going to be special.’”

In eight seasons with Smart as coordinator, Alabama ranked third, second, fifth, first, first, fifth, 12th and third in total defense. In Year 1 under Pruitt, Bama ranks No. 1, and many believe this to be the Tide’s best defense under Saban, which is saying something. Said defensive end Jonathan Allen: “I think coach Pruitt is a little more aggressive than coach Kirby. You can see that in the way our defense plays.”

Said Pruitt: “One thing that’s happened is the game’s changing. When we all first got (to Alabama) in 2007, there were very few teams that were spreading the ball out. It was a little more condensed game. Now it’s almost like first and second down is third down now. You’ve got to have guys who can play all three downs. Probably because of that, I think everybody’s changed their philosophy on recruiting the type of guys you’ve got to recruit.”

Speaking of which: “Me and Kirby have been texting this morning about recruiting,” Pruitt said.

That Pruitt, who played at Alabama and who became the Tide’s director of player development in 2007, would say yes to replacing Smart was “a pretty easy decision,” he said. “Especially with me being two hours from home and my wife being three hours.”

Dale Pruitt coached his son at Plainview High in Rainsville, Ala., which isn’t far from the Georgia state line. Dale arrived here Friday and went to dinner with Jeremy. Asked Dale: “Want to go watch film?” Jeremy’s 1-year-old son Ridge intervened. “He wasn’t in bed yet.” Film study had to wait until another night.

If there were rough edges to Pruitt while in Athens, they appear to have been smoothed by his Tuscaloosa return. Not that there was a crowd around his station Saturday — the masses gravitated to Steve Sarkisian, about to call his first game as Alabama’s offensive coordinator in the wake of Lane Kiffin’s forced departure to Florida Atlantic.

Those who listened to Sarkisian missed Pruitt’s plain-spoken take on defensive football. “Either they’re going to score a touchdown,” he said, “or we’re going to tackle them.”

Mostly the latter happens. From Nov. 5 through Dec. 3, Alabama opponents went 273 minutes and three seconds without a touchdown. Kirby Smart’s case for being indispensable has been blown to smithereens.